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Munro Ferguson, Sir Ronald Craufurd (1860–1934)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson (1860-1934), by unknown photographer, c1930

Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson (1860-1934), by unknown photographer, c1930

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3861

Sir Ronald Crauford Munro Ferguson, Viscount Novar of Raith (1860-1934), governor-general, was born on 6 March 1860, at Raith House, Fife, Scotland, eldest child of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ferguson, M.P., and his wife Emma Eliza Ferguson, née Mandeville. In 1864, inheriting from a cousin the estates of Novar in Ross-shire and Muirton, Morayshire, his father took the additional surname Munro. Ronald was educated at home and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and served in the Grenadier Guards in 1879-84.

He entered parliament in 1884 as a Liberal, winning and losing Ross and Cromarty before taking Leith Burghs, the seat he held until 1914. He had the patronage and friendship of Lord Rosebery, whom he served as parliamentary private secretary and as a junior lord of the treasury. Other political associates were the 'Liberal Imperialists' Grey, Asquith and Haldane; his closest friend was the diplomat and poet (Sir) Cecil Spring Rice, who persuaded him to support Home Rule and to admire Theodore Roosevelt's America. On 31 August 1889 after a visit to India, Munro Ferguson married Lady Helen Hermione Blackwood (1865-1941), daughter of the viceroy, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, an able and imperious woman on whose judgement of politics and of protocol he relied absolutely.

Disappointed by his exclusion from the Liberal government of 1905 Munro Ferguson vainly 'asked for Bombay'. He remained active in parliament but, disliking Asquith and his 'vulgar pushing mob', showed increasing indifference to party discipline. Made a privy councillor in 1910, he refused Asquith's offered peerage, preferring to continue as the first country gentleman of Scotland rather than wear the badge of political failure. Anxious to find a billet suitable for his talents, he refused the governorship of Victoria (as he had that of South Australia in 1895), but accepted the governor-generalship and a G.C.M.G. in February 1914. Despite Australian complaints that the British government was ridding itself of a failed colleague, Munro Ferguson was soon to prove himself the ablest of the early governors-general. He arrived in Melbourne on 18 May.

Munro Ferguson was determined to maintain British parliamentary principles, to represent Imperial policies as the sole official channel of communication between the governments, and to maintain the prestige of the infant Commonwealth against the pretensions of the States, and especially their governors. He was soon in bitter conflict with Sir Gerald Strickland, the pugnacious governor of New South Wales. Aware that the governor-general had specific constitutional powers as well as the monarch's prerogative to advise and warn, he intended to be politically impartial. He believed Labor to be the party of federalism, though he distrusted the power of its caucus and found some Liberals more congenial company. His private observations on Australia were sharp and candid. A handsome, energetic man, he was kind if frequently choleric, with much of his wife's disdain for the socially inappropriate. Tree-felling was his favourite recreation, even in Melbourne. He came to admire some aspects of Australian life while deploring many others, and seemed most at home with country folk, whom he compared with his Scottish tenantry.

Munro Ferguson's political acumen was tested when Prime Minister (Sir) Joseph Cook on 2 June 1914 requested a double dissolution, hoping to strengthen his precarious majority. Munro Ferguson had excellent precedents for claiming a discretion to refuse the request, and he rejected the arguments of Attorney-General Sir William Irvine that the governor-general was obliged to follow the advice of the prime minister; but after consulting the chief justice Sir Samuel Griffith, convinced that it was in the best interests of both parties, he granted the dissolution. Munro Ferguson was increasingly annoyed that his action was interpreted as acceptance of Irvine's narrow interpretation of his powers. He believed he could seek advice from any source, even the Opposition, and acted on his assumption that he could discuss confidential government business with any privy councillor.

Before the political storm was stilled by the Opposition's decisive victory in the September elections, war intervened. Cabinet was dispersed electioneering, and Munro Ferguson was perforce involved with the minister for defence and the attorney-general in major policy decisions. War transformed his daily role. He continued to travel widely, but social commitments were reduced (and the ballroom of Melbourne's Government House given over to Lady Helen's work for the British Red Cross Society, which earned her appointment as G.B.E. in 1918). Promotion of the war effort became his chief concern: as commander-in-chief he inspected camps, corresponded with British and Australian generals as one soldier to another, complained of the presumptions of the navy (which had its own direct communication with the Admiralty), saw almost as much of the minister of defence as of the prime minister, and judged politics and society in terms of the Empire's struggle for survival, increasingly regarding Australia as a 'Fools' Paradise' ignorant of external realities. Privately he chafed at his distance from Europe, mused that a different fate might have made him minister for war, and considered (perhaps rightly) that Lady Helen had more of the qualities needed to lead the Empire in war than Asquith.

Munro Ferguson did not hesitate to advise and warn Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and the Colonial Office on all sorts of issues, and complained vigorously when not consulted. In August 1914 he had forced Sir John Forrest to consult Fisher concerning emergency fiscal measures. In September he cabled directly to the governor-general of New Zealand warning against the dispatch of troop-ships without assurance of safety from German cruisers. In March 1915 he refused to appoint a royal commission on the New Hebrides until London had been informed. In May he mediated between British generals and the Australian government on the disputed appointment of a successor to Major General Sir William Bridges on Gallipoli. He deplored Australia's attitude to non-European allies and willingly responded to a secret request from the British government in January 1915 that he prepare 'his Ministers' for post-war occupation of German colonies north of the Equator by the Japanese. He shared British concern over the inefficiency of Australian security measures, and consented in January 1916 to Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) George Steward, his official secretary, becoming head of a new Counter-Espionage Bureau, active in surveillance of dissidents as well as enemy agents. He was annoyed, however, when seedy associates of 'Pickle the Spy' intruded into Government House.

In October 1915 Billy Hughes succeeded Fisher, beginning five years of an increasingly complex personal and political relationship between prime minister and governor-general. Aware that Hughes was never fully frank with him, he came to believe 'my little Welshman' indispensable to the war effort, and acquiesced in manipulation of his goodwill to Hughes's political benefit, risking the appearance, if less often the substance, of the impartiality required of his office.

Munro Ferguson welcomed Hughes's conversion to the cause of conscription in 1916, though critical of his tactics, and when the cabinet crumbled on the eve of the first plebiscite he crossed Sydney Harbour at midnight to console 'the poor little man' in a taxi on the quay. Nevertheless he refused to promise Hughes a dissolution in advance. He was also unhappy with his involvement in the manoeuvres by which the new National government tried vainly to avoid an election. As the war news worsened he supported a second attempt to win conscription, but advised a dissolution rather than another plebiscite. He deplored Hughes's pledge to resign if the vote was lost, and when the prime minister reacted to hostility in Queensland by creating a Federal police force he argued successfully for a more rational plan. The bitterness of the campaign, and especially Archbishop Daniel Mannix's part in it, shocked him.

Munro Ferguson refused Hughes's request to keep secret their meeting in Melbourne to discuss the defeat of conscription, complaining that he was no Charles II to hide in an oak tree 'and besides, a gum don't give much cover'. On 29 December 1917 he urged him to resign and recommend another Nationalist; Hughes delayed until 8 January and left it to the governor-general to conclude, after diligent interviews with leading figures in government and opposition, that the Labor leader could not guarantee supply and that only Hughes was acceptable to all Nationalists. Opposition criticism of the renewed commission was not allayed by his explanatory memorandum. He attempted to bring all parties together at his special recruiting conference held at Government House in April 1918, but critics continued to identify him with Hughes's political interests. In so far as the charge was justified, it arose from his belief that the cause of the Empire at war overrode domestic considerations.

Munro Ferguson attempted to use Hughes's apparent dependence on him to renew his request that the Executive Council should consider measures as well as approve them. Hughes rebuffed him, then undermined his authority by winning at the 1918 Imperial War Conference the right of direct communication with the British prime minister. Munro Ferguson was shocked, predicting greater Australian independence and eventual alignment with the United States of America, and foreseeing a need for British political representation separate from the governor-general. The dilemmas of Imperial defence uncovered by Lord Jellicoe's visit of 1919 also alarmed him, and although he shared Hughes's contempt for President Wilson and his League of Nations, he watched 'the little man pull the noses of the Mikado and Wilson at the Peace Conference' with trepidation.

Despite some disillusionment Munro Ferguson agreed to extend his term from May 1919 until 6 October 1920, in part to organize the visit of the Prince of Wales. During the tour his insistence on Federal precedence so offended some of the State governors that they asked that the Colonial Office never again appoint so overbearing a governor-general. Nevertheless the public farewells to the Munro Fergusons were warm, and the press rightly praised his contribution to such causes as forestry, encouragement of science and the beautification of Melbourne. Munro Ferguson was surprised to find himself sorry to leave, though pleased to return to his estates and consoled with elevation to the peerage.

His public career was not over. In October 1922 he took office as secretary for Scotland under Bonar Law. Baldwin dropped him in 1924, losing patience with the Ferguson brand of political independence. He chaired the committee reviewing political honours in 1925, was appointed a knight of the Thistle in 1926 and received various other honours. His meticulously ordered papers of his period in Australia were used by (Sir) Ernest Scott for his volume of the official history of the war. A portrait by William McInnes hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.

Lord Novar died at Raith on 30 March 1934. Childless, he had selected a sister's grandson as his heir. Lady Helen died on 9 April 1941.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1901-29 (Melb, 1956)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1964, 1979)
  • C. Cunneen, Kings' Men (Syd, 1983)
  • Novar papers (National Library of Australia and Scottish Record Office).

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Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Munro Ferguson, Sir Ronald Craufurd (1860–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson (1860-1934), by unknown photographer, c1930

Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson (1860-1934), by unknown photographer, c1930

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3861

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Viscount Novar
  • Ferguson, Ronald Craufurd Munro
  • Novar, Viscount

6 March 1860
Raith, Fife, Scotland


30 March 1934
Raith, Fife, Scotland

Cultural Heritage